Slaughtering Sacred Linguistic Marksmanship Cows: Following up “Clickbait”

Author’s note: Context is important. The previous post here was intended for the military audience. Judging by things I’ve seen from others it may be applicable to law enforcement entities as well. Without experience based frame of reference it may be tough to get the reasoning in these posts. Nothing personal, just putting it up front.

The intent was spur conversation. In that vein, the post seems to have been successful. Was the initial statement and title misleading? Maybe. Was it clickbait? Maybe. Did it get people to read, use critical thinking skills, and discuss? One comment answered that for me: “I shared this article on my personal blog FB page, which is populated by soldiers I served with who wouldn’t normally read an article about the profession. Within an hour, it was read by multiple people who would otherwise not give a professional circular this sort of attention. Now they are thinking, and they’ve been exposed to a higher concept.  The “clickbait” worked. I’ll take it.” Note to self- don’t make a habit of doing things that can be considered clickbait.

There were a few comments saying it’s semantics. So let’s look at the definition of semantics. Source is Mirriam-Webster.


-noun, plural in form but singular or plural in construction se·man·tics \si-ˈman-tiks\

  1. 1 : the study of meanings:a :  the historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development b (1) :  semiotics (2) :  a branch of semiotics dealing with the relations between signs and what they refer to and including theories of denotation, extension, naming, and truth
  2. 2 : general semantics
  3. 3a : the meaning or relationship of meanings of a sign or set of signs; especially :  connotative b :  the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda ) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings

Yes it is a matter of semantics. Why? Words have meaning (see definition 1). The Cambridge and Oxford online dictionaries both define marksmanship as “skill in shooting”. That’s it. That’s pretty similar to my personal definition of the ability or act of using a ballistic tool to put a hole in something at distance. It says nothing of mindset and nothing of manipulations. Again, 2/3 of the combat triad is left untouched. Why is this important? If you say skill in shooting (marksmanship) you mean the act of firing. That’s it. Again, words have meaning. Say what you mean.

Marksmanship is a vital skill. It is one of the most vital skills a Soldier should learn. However, stopping at the phase of stabilize your weapon, determine any adjusted point of aim to compensate for distance, wind, or movement, apply proper aim, press the trigger straight to the rear without disturbing aim, recover from recoil, reset trigger, repeat as necessary- well that’s only part of the equation. Manipulations are vital. Decision making and proper mindset is vital.

With that in mind, this is a product of leadership failures. As stated in the article, I am not free of blame. I saw some criticism on the initial post about this. One that struck a chord was, “Absolutely. And the best advice I got for instructing was to make people leave with success on the mind, not ridicule and failure…” This is an extremely valid point. Adult learning theory speaks of the point this comment makes. Insulting people is a way to put them on a defensive footing and turn them off to the conversation. Truth. On the other hand, I’m a career Infantryman. I’ve spent almost my entire adult life in an environment of brutal honesty. Tiptoeing around uncomfortable subjects to spare ego doesn’t get points across like a figurative sledgehammer to the face does. If it hurts, well, it may apply. If not, you’re either a) probably good to go, or b) not intellectually honest. (Not directed at the commenter)

I know I would rather be told harsh truths in a harsh manner because my failures (as in failing to train skills) unnecessarily further endangers lives. This isn’t a place for the nice nuances of subtleties in my opinion. I wish someone had told me these things years ago as a young team leader or young squad leader, rather than letting me walk through life falsely thinking we were truly preparing my men through good quality training. Instead these things hit me hard in the last 18 months or so of my career. And yes, I got a talking to once or twice for my no bullshit way of voicing my opinion.

Some took umbrage with the idea that marksmanship skills should be isolated skills in regular training. Manipulations should also be isolated skills. There is a time to integrate them; however, they are separate skills leading to the task of weapons employment. The above figure is taken from US Army Soldier Training Publication (STP) 21-1-SMCT, or the Soldiers Manual of Common Tasks (August 2015). It clearly shows shooting and manipulations as separate skills.

Why would that be? Cognitive load theory lends a few answers. Manipulations and engaging targets (marksmanship) are skills that combine multiple actions and/or considerations. These would at least be semi-complex as they’re not instinctual. Attempting to learn both simultaneously instead of isolating them is counterproductive. Working memory can only handle so many things at once and that number is small. Each skill should be drilled to the point of conscious competence at the very least before attempting to integrate them. Ideally they are performed with automaticity, at a level of unconscious competence. Integrating skills that don’t have to be thought out is easy. The problem is that it takes time to build automaticity. Current theory places building unconscious competence at thousands of correct repetitions. I’m not crazy; I know there is limited time in basic training to build this. I also know Soldiers spend quite a bit of time waiting for the next task- this is a time to build that unconscious competence. When it comes time to just go, they will be able to do what they need to do.

Here’s a non-shooting example. Bear with me because it’s been 23 years. I remember drills playing high school football. For frame of reference I played defensive end, not a very good one, but gave it my all. We isolated different drills. We worked coming off the ball and beating the offensive lineman, getting through the block. We worked getting penetration into the backfield and finding the ball. We worked (in my case) containing the run to between the tackles and providing pursuit if it was going to the other side. We worked pressuring the quarterback and batting passes. We worked tackling drills. All of these things were worked separately and then put into practice together. If it works on the football field, why wouldn’t it work with much more complex problem sets like weapons employment?

Bottom line, learning transfer must happen or it’s useless. Stacking too many things at once kills the concept of cognitive load and destroys the chances of learning transfer.

Far too many organizations merely check the block to meet mandatory requirements and move on to other things- like other mandatory requirements. I’m looking from a military perspective obviously but have seen hints that it may also be somewhat true in the law enforcement community. People mindlessly regurgitate the mantra of “back to the basics” without taking time to think about what that means. They don’t continuously drill the basic skills, and that’s if they’ve even trained them to begin with.

The United States Army is the most technologically advanced the world has ever known, yet people are (in some places) satisfied with a 57% hit rate (23 of 40) on targets with dimensions of 19.5″ x 40″. Consider that the “marksmanship training” typically teaches to the test of zeroing and qualification, then consider that a not insignificant portion of the population is unable to zero their rifle in the allocated 18 rounds and/or unable to score the 57% required hits in qualification, and it’s even more damning.

Many of these same people have no idea of how to reduce a complex stoppage. Many of them don’t even know how to zero their weapons without the aid of a cheat sheet telling them how many clicks per block on a standardized target to adjust their sights. Many of them can’t boresight their aiming lasers and even fewer zero after boresighting. Let that sink in.

What happens in combat if an individual who always called for an alibi fire on the range because they didn’t have the skills to reduce a double feed has a double feed in the middle of a gunfight? It’s not good.

Train the skills when it’s time to train. Integrate them in training. Force mastery or at least proficiency in the basics. The two way live fire exercise is too late to say I wish we had covered…


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Mike Lewis
Retired Senior Noncommissioned Officer of Infantry with 20 years of active service in the United States Army.

"During my tenure, I was blessed to serve in some of the most storied units in the Army, including the 82nd Airborne Division and the 506th Infantry Regiment (AASLT) (Band of Brothers), and with some of the finest human beings one could know. I have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan in support of combat operations, served on deployments to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in support of peacekeeping and stability operations, and served on the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). My final assignment in the Army was as the 82nd Airborne Division Small Arms Master Gunner, developing and instituting weapons training, conducting force modernization activities pertaining to small arms weapons and enablers, and consulting with the Maneuver Center of Excellence (Fort Benning, GA) on said subjects. I have attended both shooter and instructor level classes from some of the best trainers in the industry, am an NRA certified instructor, and have conducted firearms training on the civilian market for concerned citizens since 2007."